With all the ads, articles, and newsgroups hammering us with buzzwords, it's easy to think that the only "real" equipment must be either Class-A, discreet, or tube. But don't forget that there have been many pieces of great sounding gear that have used the "black sheep" of the electronic world: the IC chip. One good example of this is the now legendary Trident 80B recording console. Trident produced a great number of these boards over a period of almost two decades, and many hit records were the result. Although out of production for over ten years now, they have gained sort of a cult-following resurgence. I have spent a great deal of time "behind the wheel" of this board for almost fifteen years, and I know its sound inside and out. Although I still routinely use many different preamps for specific applications, I must say that the 80B preamps work very well in almost any situation. In fact, if I'm stacking a bunch of background vocals, I often choose the stock 80B preamps instead of some much more esoteric options. There is something about the character of them that I prefer. Since it is very common for the average studio to have an assortment of preamps for various applications, it is not surprising that the 80B channel strips have been reissued. I had the opportunity to audition the S80 Producer Box input-strip reissue in a direct comparison to my 80B console. The question on everybody's mind is... Does it sound like an original 80B? I'll give you my findings.
First of all, instead of your standard rackmount, the modules come in a wooden ash box that is designed to sit on a table. The modules have an external power supply that really gets your attention. This is no wall-wart. This is a large, overbuilt, console-like power supply with a huge toroidal transformer and rail-voltage indicator lights, and it looks like it could almost power an entire city. Well, not really. But what it can power is two sets of Producer Boxes. The modules themselves are laid out (much like the console) with anodized aluminum knobs and original- looking buttons and switches. The main differences are that there are no aux sends, and the faders are alongside the channel controls to the right.
My first session with the Producer Box was to track a loud Gospel vocal. I recorded the singer with a Telefunken 251 into the S80, then to an 1176 feeding a MOTU interface. I kept having the instinct to reach for the EQ to do something, but kept pulling my hand back because it was almost perfect. Plenty of headroom, and it sat really well in the track with lots of body and clarity. I had the feeling that the S80 had a little more body than my board modules, but more on that later. Due to time restraints, I couldn't do an A/B comparison on this session. My next trial was with a male vocal. This time I was able to take the time to compare the Producer Box against the vintage 80B. As I had speculated on the first session, the Producer Box seemed to have more extension on the low end than my board, although the presence seemed quite similar. I got great results tracking an acoustic guitar in stereo. A nicely balanced sound-with just a slight 200 Hz dip to clean up the lower mids and a slight boost at 1 kHz for some articulation, and it sounded wonderful. Again, the low-end seemed more extended than on my console, but still nicely controlled. (Trident's John Oram states that the extended low-end is due to a better power supply and that many 80B's had their power supplies rebuilt)
I decided to give the EQ a workout at this point and switched to line level sources that were already recorded. The Trident EQ is one of the high points of the console. It has an aggressive and present sound without being harsh. Many times I have worked on much more expensive boards, and I've been disappointed with the character of the EQ compared to the 80B's. So I experimented with a snare drum and didn't immediately get what I was looking for with the Producer Box. For comparison, I brought the same snare track back through the console and... there it was. There is a very cool quality to the upper-mid EQ on the 80B that lets you dial in an appropriate amount of nastiness when needed. A good kind of nastiness. The Producer Box, on the other hand, seemed a little more civilized. It seemed very smooth and very nice, just not quite as aggressive. I had no issues with the high or low-frequency shelving controls. They seemed to behave exactly as expected, virtually identically to my console-especially the high end. The sweepable high and low mids, although very nice, seemed to be a little different.
After listening to various sources, I decided to do some measuring. After playing with test tones for awhile, I came to the conclusion that the Producer Box has a wider Q than the stock console on the high and low mids. It sounds very good; it's just harder to make it quite as aggressive. Another oddity is that I measured several more dBs of boost on the low-mid and low-shelving EQ than was indicated by the markings. I don't know if this is a tolerance issue with the pots or if a different taper was in order. Keep in mind that this is not a big negative, but something that I noticed when EQ'ing tracks and confirmed through measurements. Just to investigate further, I opened up the Producer Box to see how true to the original it is. As in the original, it uses TL071s and 5534s for the active stages. The one notable exception is the inclusion of 2142s for all of the balanced outputs. While many might consider this a better choice than the original 5534 output drivers, it should be pointed out that this difference could have some effect on the "classic" sound. (Early Series-80 boards had discreet output drivers, but the majority of the production run had 5534s.) Another difference is the Sowter input transformer-not used in the original. I understand the original transformers are no longer available, so John Oram commissioned Sowter to make as near as possible reproductions. Such is the way of things when reissuing 25-year-old equipment. (Oram states that the first 80B's did have Sowters but they were later changed to cut costs)
So what's my conclusion? I think that the Producer Box reissue is a very good, versatile preamp/EQ that I would not hesitate to use on anything. It has a nice combination of clarity and smoothness, much like the original. Is it a direct copy of an 80B? Not quite. There are some circuitry differences that skew it in a slightly different direction. Some might say a better direction; some may not. The Producer Box almost has a little more "hi-fi" approach to things vs. the somewhat uncivilized but lovable character of the original. It does have the low-end extension that I wish my console possessed, but I must confess that I do miss the character of the 80B. But keep in mind, these differences are quite subtle. Again, this is a very good sounding unit that reminds us that good circuit topology is the important thing, not just the choice between tubes or ICs. (£2185 GBP MSRP; www.tridentaudio.co.uk)